Category Archives: REUSE Forum

When is Doing the Bare Minimum Good Enough?

When it comes to safe coal ash disposal, the answer is almost never.

Dominion Virginia Power is consolidating 3.65 million cubic yards of coal ash from four unlined disposal ponds into a fifth clay-bottomed pond. They all sit on Possum Point, a spit of land in Dumfries, Virginia, between Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. The coal ash accumulated from 1948 to 2003, when Dominion’s facility there stopped burning coal to generate electricity.

To deal with the pond water in which the coal ash has marinated all these decades, on January 14, 2016, Dominion was granted a permit for a minimalist fix — to treat 215 million gallons for contaminants, then deposit the water into Quantico Creek.

This is OK with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and environmental groups don’t believe Virginia’s requirements are stringent enough to remove all the mercury cadmium, and arsenic from the treated water.

Coal-ash water can be restored to safe drinking quality, but it’s a costly process. Lax water quality requirements leave wiggle room, as the Washington Post observed: “While Dominion officials called the water-handling permit requirements ‘strict,’ critics point out that the level of arsenic contaminants allowed by Virginia law is 15 times higher than what is allowed in neighboring North Carolina.”

North Carolina learned the hard way. It tightened standards only after Duke Energy had a pipe burst and spew coal ash and contaminated water into nearly 80 miles of the Dan River.

Quantico Creek is already far from pristine. People haven’t been allowed to consume its contaminated bass, catfish and eel since 1999. Adding lightly-treated coal-ash water isn’t going to improve the seafood.

As for the last pond ending up with all the coal ash residue, Dominion also plans to take a thrifty, minimalist approach by topping it with impermeable plastic, 24 inches of soil, and planted vegetation to keep rainwater out and minimize erosion at the site.

However, the pond’s sides under the surface will remain unlined forever. This means moisture can continue to seep in and leach contaminants into surrounding groundwater.

Instead of keeping a constant eye on the bottom line, Dominion could do the right thing for all concerned by choosing the middle path — to beneficially reuse all its own coal ash on its own land for another purpose.

By utilizing Macroencapsulation the ash in a fully-lined area, which renders it dry, inert and harmless for centuries to come, Dominion could use the land, for example, as a solar panel farm. The terrain could be molded to accommodate the panels as it’s filled with ash, and the infrastructure to generate electricity from solar power is already right there. It would be an easy win-win if environmental preservation and land maximization were top priorities.

Instead, Dominion is taking an expedient, penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to beat the clock be within the letter of Virginia law today. Since most Virginians aren’t easily conned into living with contaminated soil and water, it’s only a matter of time before Virginia is compelled to follow North Carolina’s lead and pay more than lip service to public health and safety.

Kicking the can down the road until another round of remediation becomes necessary will ultimately cost more time and money than doing it right the first time.

After the Landfill, What’s Next? – Has the landfill created options?

Today, the U.S. is experiencing two distinct trends in waste management: 1) overall landfill capacity is decreasing, and 2) localities are finding more innovative ways to reclaim maxed-out landfills and repurpose them into beneficial public spaces.

Over the past 20 years, the total number of working landfills has dropped from 20,000 to just 1,900. One reason is that as older landfills reach capacity, the capital cost to expand them has become prohibitive. And new landfills aren’t popping up because state and federal permitting regulations have become more stringent. Not to mention that for nearly every proposed landfill, there’s a highly vocal contingent of concerned residents fighting not to have it anywhere near them.

In any event, operating a landfill isn’t as financially satisfying as it used to be.

Since human-generated waste is hardly headed for extinction, this dearth of landfill airspace might be disastrous if not for recycling, which has advanced significantly. Today, approximately 45% of our waste gets recycled. This is an impressive achievement when you consider that the U.S. generates 249 million tons of solid waste and 450 million tons of construction and debris material annually.

In keeping with the spirit of recycling, as landfills reach the end of their useful lives, it makes sense to reuse the land they occupy. Worldwide, former landfills are being transformed into parks and sites of housing developments and schools.

However, this beneficial reuse endgame is a fairly recent development, and many landfills don’t have infrastructure now in place to avoid the array of design challenges that must be overcome before transformation is possible.

For example, mature landfills may have waste piled to a peak. Depending on the landfill’s total acreage, the peak’s plateau may be a sizeable area, but the slopes around it are still wasted space. That’s why some retired landfills just get covered with top soil and planted over. Instead of mountains of waste, they become mountains of greenery — pretty, but essentially useless.

As populations grow and vacant land becomes scarce, developers are setting their sights on landfills, which often sit in the midst of populated areas, prime for residential or commercial building or recreational use.

One such notable example is the former Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in New York. At 2,200 acres, it was once the world’s largest dump — a dangerous, odiferous eyesore. It closed in 2001, and in 2008 began a 30-year transition into a magnificent park three times larger than Manhattan’s Central Park.

Other forward-thinking localities would be wise to re-evaluate their landfill infrastructure and ensure that perpetually usable acreage is its ultimate goal. EnCAP-IT’s macroencapsulated berm solutions not only maximize a landfill’s capacity today, but set the stage for its eventual closure to supply the greatest acreage possible, a win-win scenario that maximizes potential ROI in both phases.

Hold On …. Coal Ash Complicates Landfill Lifespan Projections

In December 2014, the EPA ruled that coal ash is a nonhazardous material that can be safely deposited in regional landfills along with household and construction waste.

Coal ash is messy substance created during coal-powered electricity production. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 115 million tons of coal ash were produced in 2013, the most recent figure available.

For regional landfills, adding coal ash to their waste streams represents a lucrative opportunity — maybe.

Utilities now reuse about 40% of their coal ash in products such as cement and drywall, to name a few. They deposit the rest into landfills or ponds they maintain on-site. However, many of these catchalls are being forced to close due to concerns over harmful substances leaching from the ash into surrounding soil and groundwater. That makes regional landfills the next logical choice for disposal.

Regional landfills can profit by charging utilities a gate fee to accept their coal ash. And here’s how that becomes a real Catch-22.

Landfills’ remaining useful lives have always been projected using conventional waste streams that haven’t included coal ash. As an example, here’s the “Solid Waste Managed in Virginia During Calendar Year 2014,” which lists current lifespan projections for Virginia landfills.

Many landfills are mature sites with only enough airspace remaining to last (in Virginia, for instance) an average of 27.2 years. To suddenly add millions of tons of coal ash to the waste stream could deplete their airspace many years sooner. This could result in communities facing waste disposal crises they never saw coming as their existing regional landfill becomes tapped out.

So what’s a landfill to do?

One win-win solution is for regional landfills to accept the coal ash as beneficial reuse material, but rather than using up scarce airspace for disposal, to divert the ash into fill for macroencapsulated berms that can be constructed around the landfill’s perimeter. Macroencapsulation renders the coal ash completely inert and harmless for generations to come, creates more airspace for the landfill, and staves of the crisis of capacity. Both problems solved.

There’s Airspace Aplenty, So What’s the Problem?

“Airspace” is generally defined as the number of cubic yards a landfill has available for waste. The amount of remaining airspace can be used to estimate a landfill’s remaining lifespan in years.

Since the United States covers vast, largely unpopulated areas, particularly in the Midwest, it would seem we have limitless capacity for landfill disposal. And it explains why, in a recent survey published in MSW Management magazine, Midwestern states have used landfills for the bulk of disposal (76-79%) as opposed to recycling, composting, or combusting of municipal solid waste.

These wide-open states are still generations away from facing the capacity issues of waste management faced by more densely populated areas, such as the East and West Coasts.

But let’s bring the issue closer to home. According to the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s study, “Solid waste Managed in Virginia in 2014,” Virginia has several landfills with eons of remaining permitted life. For example, the Brunswick Waste Management Facility has 172 years, Loudon County 100 years, and Virginia Beach City 178 years. In other areas, we’re looking at fewer than 10 years.

Logically, the simplest solution would be to transport waste from airspace-strapped regions to those facilities with plenty of airspace.

However, since the available landfills are either in the far reaches of the state, or otherwise nowhere near the areas that need relief, to transport the waste would double or triple the cost of disposal, which in most cases is prohibitively expensive and makes the idea a non-starter.

On average, the VA DEQ projects a statewide average life expectancy for MSW landfills to be 27.2 years, which would seem ample time to ramp up recycling efforts and find other solutions for disposal. However, if you pull the remote, non-cost-effective sites with huge remaining capacity out of the calculation, the life expectancy for the vast majority of sites is cut roughly in half, which greatly increases the urgency of developing better ways.

One solution is to leverage existing resources by creating more airspace in landfills closer to where the waste is generated. This would keep transportation costs in line. Erecting macroencapsulated berms around these landfills would do just that.

Wanted: Ideas for Beneficially Reusing Coal Ash

There are two basic ways to reuse the coal ash power companies generate while producing electricity:

1) unencapsulated, which means it’s spread in loose form. This was once common, but since the environmental hazards became apparent, it’s now permissible only in limited, special applications.

2) encapsulated, either on a micro level by incorporating it into other products, or on a macro level where it’s entombed in bulk.

The ability to reuse coal ash in productive ways yields the same benefits as any other form of recycling. Coal ash can replace some virgin materials and help to preserve them. Recycling also tends to require less energy consumption, which generates fewer greenhouse gases and helps the environment. Not to mention that giving coal ash a new useful life avoids the need for its disposal.

Unencapsulated reuse is problematic any way you slice it, even though it offers some great benefits in agricultural applications. Substances in the coal ash can improve soil texture, balance its pH, boost its nutrients, and increase its water retention. These all improve crop yields.
But the bad news is that it leaves coal ash’s innate disadvantages unaddressed, and it can only be mixed into soil in quantities too minute to put a dent in the coal ash supply. Greater volumes leach harmful substances into the groundwater and particulate matter into the air. The bottom line is that spreading coal ash on farmland or using it as fill material is no safer than letting it sit in an unlined landfill.

So that leaves us with the encapsulated options, such as microencapsulating coal ash into wallboard, concrete, roofing materials and bricks. This is excellent, as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, we now reuse only about 40% of the more than 92 million tons of coal ash the U.S. churns out each year. This is partly because building manufacturing facilities near coal-fired power plants to minimize the expense of transporting hazardous coal ash usually poses other operational drawbacks that reduce the potential ROI.

And none of these previous options reduce the amount of coal ash already in the ground that’s been accumulating for many years.

So what can we do with all this existing coal ash surplus?

Mundane as it may seem, the most efficient way we’ve devised yet to beneficially reuse coal ash on the scale required is to entomb it in fully lined macroencapsulated berms that serve as the foundation for eventually reclaiming land. It’s also a way for power companies to partner with municipalities and create mutually beneficial reuse projects.

It’s not a jazzy solution, but until someone devises new reuses for coal ash on a grand scale, such as to save Venice from sinking, macroencapsulation is the one rock-solid solution we’ve got.

Why We Must Maximize What We’ve Got

Thanks to materials recycling and organic waste diversion (composting), landfills are on a gentle downward slide, but as long as mankind generates solid waste, we’ll still need landfills in some form. The question municipalities should ask themselves is not, “How soon can we close the landfill?” but, “How can we extend our landfill’s life without giving up any more land?”

Strangely enough, it’s the first question that often dominates current thinking about landfills. In the 1980s, the U.S. had approximately 7,600 landfills, but that number shrank to 1,908 by 2013 (the most recent year for which the EPA has figures).

The good news is that this reduction didn’t cause a crisis in most regions, but only because waste management gained sophistication and figured out how to make landfills more high-capacity and efficient than your grandfather’s local “dump.”

More good news is that the EPA estimates waste going into landfills dropped from 145.3 million tons in 1990 to 134.3 million in 2013, despite overall increases in population.

To put the degree of improvement on a personal level, the EPA report states that in 2013, municipal solid waste (MSW) averaged 4.40 pounds per person per day, yet the net per capita discard rate (after materials recovery and combustion with energy recovery) was 2.32 pounds per person per day, roughly 53%. That means 47% of MSW went elsewhere. Hence, landfills’ gentle downward slide.

But until we perfect perpetual recycling for everything or develop the technology to launch waste into space — out of sight, out of mind — landfills will continue to be a necessity.

To give just one example of how recycling efforts fall short in the disposal dilemma, take the largest contributor to landfills, paper and paperboard. Paper fiber does eventually wear out and must be discarded. In 2013, 27% of all landfill waste (68.6 million tons) still consisted of paper products.

As recycling evolves, disposal technology evolves in counterpoint. Macroencapsulated berms are one way to enable landfills to increase capacity without increasing footprint, which can extend their useful lives by decades.

Until we have an ultimate solution for waste disposal or diversion, improving landfills is the soundest alternative.

(You can read the full EPA report, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013.”)

Construction & Demolition Debris: Addressing Today’s Needs

Green building and renovation are holistic construction practices dedicated to generating, to the smallest degree possible, construction and demolition (C&D) debris that can’t be reused or recycled. EnCAP-IT fully supports such “zero waste” initiatives, but the fact is that we don’t yet have the technology to fully implement them. That leaves the question of what to do today’s C&D debris.

The Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA), the C&D recycling industry’s national trade association, estimates that more than 325 million tons of recoverable C&D materials are generated in the United States each year.

These materials include aggregates such as concrete, brick, asphalt, asphalt shingles and gypsum wallboard, as well as porcelain, tile, lumber, plastics, carpet, fixtures, insulation, pipe and glass. Not to mention organic waste such as soil and trees from clearing and land development.

To minimize the amount of waste from building demolitions, instead of just knocking them down and transporting all the rubble to a landfill, buildings can be carefully dismantled, with all usable materials stripped and recycled.

However, achieving a perfect balance between demolition and new construction, where 100 % of everything salvaged can find new life, is an elusive target and still years from becoming reality.

Many landfills that accept C&D materials separate the concrete and metals for recycling from incoming waste loads, but plenty of material still remains for disposal, and the extra step of recycling results in increased operational costs for the landfill.

Until the construction market can fully demand the never-ending supply of C&D debris and keep it from ever reaching landfills, we must help landfills continue to maximize their disposal capacity while simultaneously preparing themselves for eventual reclamation. Today, landfills’ geographic footprint can be configured to be repurposed for safe, beneficial use by the surrounding community. Solutions such as macroencapsulation play an important role in making it happen.

As Landfills Max Out, It Takes a Village to Determine What’s Next

When a landfill nears the end of its useful life, all the people it affects — its owners, government officials, nearby residents and developers — need to come together to develop a plan for the future if the land is to be saved.

No homeowner ever chooses to have a landfill in their backyard, and many fight hard to prevent it. Yet all that solid waste has to go somewhere. For those who end up living near such disposal facilities, a great consolation lies in knowing there’s a long-term strategy in place to transform the eyesore back into a productive space that will benefit the community. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

One shining example of cooperation is Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This former landfill is 60 feet high, 800 feet long, and is composed of compacted layers of solid waste and clean soil. Topped by the seal of Virginia Beach, it’s the focal point of a park that covers 165 acres and includes and two lakes, one of which is freshwater and permits fishing.

Mt. Trashmore park is family-friendly, with amenities such as volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, a walking path, and outdoor fitness stations, as well as many picnic shelters with charcoal grills. The 26,000-square-foot Kids Cove Playground is a destination in itself, with a safe rubber surface and a variety of outdoor equipment suitable for climbing.

A newer addition is the Skate Park, a 24,000-square-foot facility with a Skatelike Pro skating surface covering a street course, a bowl, and a vert ramp that’s free for skaters of all types to use.

True progress in environmental protection are only achieved when complementary entities join forces and help further mutually beneficial goals, which often yields creative results such as Mt. Trashmore.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a 250-acre construction and demolition landfill in Lorton, Virginia, which has gone through a lengthy process to decide its fate. All parties finally agreed that it will close by the end of 2018, after all its owners’ proposals to extend its life were rejected.

One idea on the table was to repurpose the land as a solar farm, part of Fairfax County’s Green Energy Triangle initiative for renewable energy. But all bets were off once a shutdown compromise couldn’t be reached, and now the landfill is destined to be covered with soil and planted with trees. Period.

The parties who simply wanted that landfill closed won their battle. But one could argue they lost the war because the land will lose all purpose once it’s planted and abandoned.

These two scenarios serve to highlight what happens when people choose to work together — or not.

In the 17th century, the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” long before protecting the environment was anyone’s concern. But the sentiment expressed back then could not hold any greater truth today when it comes to the advantages of a collaborative approach to preserving land through beneficial reuse.